We come together this time of year in a celebration of giving thanks. Many of us have cherished traditions. Probably just as many would be happy to skip the whole season. But whatever our feelings about the holiday of Thanksgiving, most of us enjoy feeling gratitude and the act of counting our blessings even if the rest of the year we are complaining about our lack of blessings. This one day is a day of accounting, checking in and doing a little tally. We tell ourselves that even though we lost a job, got ill, lost a loved one or any of a myriad of other situations that might befall us in any given year, still, at Thanksgiving we seek out those things that are going well, polish them up, list them and take comfort in them.
And there’s nothing wrong with a little comfort. But this kind of gratitude is finite and conditional. What if the balance sheet doesn’t come out? What if the awful things that have happened cannot be compensated by any small comfort we may have? What if we have tried and tried to look on the bright side of seeming disasters, and have just not been able to find it? Then where’s the gratitude? Gone!
To have nothing and then not to even have gratitude? That really sucks! It feels better not to even go there! Forget gratitude. It’s unreliable.
I’ve talked before about the value of noticing when we are operating from a finite source, how the results are shallow rooted, unsatisfying and unreliable. So then, let’s look to see if we can discover gratitude from a deeper source.
Gratitude from that deep source, that sense of connection to all of life becomes gratitude for everything. Everything. This is not just reflecting back and saying well, this bad thing happened, but now good has come of it, so now I am grateful for it. This is deep complete gratitude for everything. Everything!
Suddenly a resounding ‘No!’ is proclaimed across the land. We can’t be grateful for the horrors of the world, for the evil that is done, for the devastation that is wrought, for the injustices – the list is long of all the things we refuse in any way to acknowledge one iota of acceptance, let alone gratitude. Really, Stephanie, you’ve gone too far this time.
Maybe so. Let’s investigate. I’m sitting with it now and asking in deeply. You do the same. I am asking myself, ‘How can I be grateful for the horrors of the world?’ Well, I can be grateful they are not happening to me in this moment. But that is clearly a self-serving, blind, finite answer. So what is the infinite answer?
It begins, as always, with coming fully into this present moment, this spacious awareness. In this relaxed state we can sense in to our bodies and all sensory experiences become illuminated. We notice sounds and sense into the rhythms, the volume, the tones, the pitch, the pulsing, the beat, the variety, the layering. We look around and notice light and shadow, color, texture, distance, shapes and the interaction of all of these in space. Closing our eyes we sense in to the pressure where our body meets whatever is supporting it. We feel the texture of whatever clothing or furniture comes in contact with our skin. We feel the temperature of the air, and the stillness or movement of it. We feel whatever is going on inside our body — pain, tension, energy, pleasant sensations and numbness. We taste the inside of our mouths. We smell the air. Some of our senses in this particular moment may be subtle, but still present if we stay with them. We become aware of our breath, rising and falling.
When we are able to release fully into this moment, savoring each sensation with a beginner’s mind, really noticing how this moment, the very one we thought was so ordinary, is in fact extraordinary because of our attention.
In this open spacious moment where we experience all that arises with a freshness we didn’t even know we were capable of experiencing, we feel gratitude.
This isn’t a gratitude conditioned on whether what we are seeing and hearing and sensing is pleasant, ordered in the way we like things to be. We have access to a less critical noticing. The impulses we might normally have — to tidy up the mess of newspapers on the floor or to bang the broom on the ceiling to get the loud radio upstairs to stop, or any other fault-finding rescue mission we might think up — all that falls away. In this moment, everything is just fine, even the mess, the noise, and all the things that usually irritate us.
We feel gratitude for simply being alive in this moment. Because this moment is the only thing that is real. Everything that has passed, both our personal history and the collective history of the world is just memory turning to compost. Whatever is in the future is currently simply potential, trending toward possible directions, always subject to the unseen and unknown, thus beyond our ability to imagine with any useful accuracy.
But this moment, this is our one and only reality. On a finite level we can enjoy it and wish it would last, or dislike it and rush to get past it. When we pause and release the tension that has us so tightly wrapped, we tap into the infinite: This moment, fully relaxed, is the gateway to our sensing the infinite.
From this deep connected place, we bring forth an authentic response to whatever arises in our experience. This is the only place where we can interact with the world, to sow peaceful seeds that might nourish the world of our great grandchildren. We can’t do that from the past or the future. There’s no power there. We can only be effective right here and now, by staying present and connected in deeply rooted moment. From this singular point of power, the present moment, when all our preferences and judgments have fallen away, we can see the universal dance and our place in it.
Raging at the horrors of the world we are stuck in a finite limited powerless rant. We feel like helpless victims in a storm of intense chaos. Going deep and quiet, touching the infinite, that is what makes real change possible. It is where Gandhi went and where Martin Luther King Jr. went before taking powerful peaceful action that changed the world. It is where Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi have gone time and again, both able to draw sustenance and even freedom in physical incarceration – turning inward to the silence, finding patience and compassion instead of bitterness – and then allowing that sense of connection to inspire wise action.
From this place we are able to spot leaders who are authentic and deeply rooted. Instead of ranting at these leaders as if they singularly hold all the power and we, who were powerful in our ability to work to elect them, are suddenly cranky demanding children angry at mommy. We encourage our leaders to remain unseduced by the shallow-rooted calls to finite power that surround them, and to stay deeply connected both to that deep wisdom and to the community that elected them in order to make wise decisions that affect us all. And we continue to stay connected, using that access to be the change we want to see in the world.
Whatever injustices we face in the world can be met from this deep place in a truly transformative way. So first on our Thanksgiving list of gratitude might be our own ability to access this font of quiet connected wisdom, grateful that it is possible in any moment to access this place.
But what if we are new to the practice and this access to the moment is just a pipe dream? Be with the pipe dream, see it for what it is. Let it inform your experience of this moment. Keep practicing being present with whatever is. Stay focused on the senses, noticing. Notice everything. Notice the judgments, notice the emotions, notice the thoughts. Just notice. Maybe it feels like a big tangle, a tight knot, inaccessible. Be with that! Notice and notice again.
When we begin to meditate it is like any new skill. At first paying attention to the present moment feels as if staying present is like trying to balance on the head of a pin. The moment we realize we’re on it, we fall off. But with patience, intention, compassion and consistent practice, we begin to notice the head of the pin getting larger until we feel present for longer and longer periods.
This sensing in to this moment is the practice that gives access to the infinite source within ourselves, the connected place that has gratitude for everything. There’s no hurry to get there. There’s just the practice. Wanting to be there, rushing to get ‘there’ only seals the door and locks us out of the possibility of accessing it. For there is no ‘there,’ only ‘here.’ Just this experience. Can you feel gratitude for the rise and fall of your breath?
We don’t have to feel grateful for the Holocaust, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or the sexual predator living near the neighborhood playground. But finding wise ways to respond to them includes recognizing that the world is now, has always been and always shall be full of what the Tao calls ‘the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.’ Without the sorrows, there are no joys. That is the nature of earthly existence.
Over and over again in our lives we see that good times can cause bad things. A booming economy is perceived as a good thing, but it also causes overworked people to feel they don’t have time for each other and then they fill their sense of lack with purchasing material things.
And we’ve all had the experience of bad times causing good things, bringing strangers together as one people to address the challenge or weather the storm together. The yin and the yang freely flow from black to white and back again, and that’s the nature of life.
As we observe this flux and flow in our own lives and in the world around us, we may find we have a more open ‘don’t know’ mind about things. When I was younger knowing seemed so important. Now that I’m older, not knowing feels even more delicious!
There’s that wonderful old story told in Buddhist and Taoist traditions, of the farmer whose neighbors told him he was so unlucky because his horse ran away. They were surprised when he replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Then the horse returned with a lot of other horses to fill his corral, and his neighbors said, “Oh, what great fortune!” He still answered, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” When his son fell off one of the horses and broke his leg, the neighbors said, “What terrible luck!” And even then the farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Well, the neighbors thought him very strange indeed. But then the military came to the village seeking young men for conscription into the army, and the farmer’s son was exempted because of his broken leg. The neighbors now saw that healing leg differently, as their sons marched off to war. “You are so lucky,” they told the farmer. And he said, of course, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” And so the story goes on throughout life.
While taking full responsibility for our own behavior and vowing to do no harm to ourselves or others, with a don’t know mind we can be less outraged at the poor choices of others, and certainly at the inconstancies of nature. Events we might perceive as good fortune, we can vest with less power to enslave us. (Enslave us? Yes, because we say, “Now that I have this great job, this great relationship, this great house, how can I keep it? How can I make this happiness last?” And suddenly we’re caught up in fear and suffering again.) It is said that the greatest suffering is caused by striving for a perfect world or by running away in fear from the imperfect world we see around us.
Here’s a thought! Let’s just stop striving for a moment! Let’s stop running away from what is! Instead, let’s simply focus on our breath and the various senses. Fully present in this moment, we feel gratitude for just this, whatever form it takes in this moment. We access the place deep within ourselves that is beyond the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Each moment, with all its sensory offerings, offers access to this vantage point, from which we recognize the fleeting gift of the wild, the monstrous and the wondrous nature of earthly existence. And we have ringside seats!
On this fine fall day, we might enjoy looking at this idea as a multitude of leaves flying around in the wind, each leaf in some state we call beautiful autumn foliage or dried up, dead, and ugly.
And we see ourselves in this turbulent swirl, sometimes in our leaf nature being acted upon and sometimes in our wind nature, causing a stir. But only when we are able to stand in the middle of the whirl, in the quiet stillness of the eye of this ongoing storm of life, can we relax into a state of gratitude for everything.
In this centered stillness we can see with fresh eyes the multi-layered dimensions of all things. We can see into the fearful hurting heart of the being who hates and hurts others in turn, and we can see the strength and resilience of the being who has been hurt but is able to access connection and compassion for all beings, spreading joy. We see those who would divide to conquer, and we recognize their fear and how they are conquered by it. We see those who see the unity and act out of that sense of unity for the well being of all. We see the natural disasters and are awed by the power of nature, and the fragileness of our brief lives, and the strength of the human spirit when challenged.
This rich alive moment that until we relaxed into it seemed so ordinary fills us with a sense of abundance. From this perspective, everything that brought us to this point softens in its wake.
We see that all those events we would not have chosen are now just stories, stories that we have clung to as proof of the veracity of our tightly held beliefs, stories that have left us scarred but still standing, or perhaps lessons we are still trying to learn from. They exist, along with cherished memories, only in our minds. And we can hold them lightly, letting them go when they no longer serve us, feeling gratitude for whatever gifts they brought us. Or we can cling to them tightly, empowering them to define and confine us.
When we relax into simple awareness of this moment, we fully inhabit our bodies and minds in a way that enables us to live an authentic, heartfelt generous and meaningful life. Accessing the infinite wisdom of simple presence, simple awareness, brings clarity and gratitude for everything.